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September 17, 2008 -- Cornell Daily Sun (NY Edu)

Column: Prohibition Of Sanity

By Daniel Eichberg

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

It's not what you think. The United States is embroiled in an immoral, racist, and ineffective war, costing taxpayers $69 billion a year with no end in sight. But unlike Iraq, this war is fought in America's streets and the casualties are American civilians.

Without exaggeration, the War on Drugs is this country's single most destructive public policy failure since slavery. The War on Drugs is America's second attempt at the failed policy of prohibition. In 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, banning the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol. Instead of reducing alcohol consumption and its associated crimes, Prohibition multiplied them exponentially.

The abolition of legal booze created an incredible demand that fueled a thriving black market. Increased demand generates increased cost, so gangsters like Al Capone made millions trafficking illegal hooch with huge profit margins. These thugs gunned down rival bootleggers, as well as bystanders caught in the crossfire. Violent alcohol trafficking disappeared only after Prohibition was lifted and bootlegging alcohol became unprofitable.

Not much has changed since the '20s, except that gangs have traded in their Tommy guns for TEC-9s. Competing drug dealers routinely battle for turf and settle customer disputes with drive-by shootings. Just as the FBI was unable to stop 1920s gangsters and the flow of alcohol, modern law enforcement officers and the DEA are powerless to thwart the army of organized criminals who successfully smuggle hundreds of tons of illicit substances across our boarders annually.

The incentives for the Drug Barons are simply too great to give up the fight: their pockets grow fat with an estimated $10 to $50 billion of untaxable revenue each year. After spending four decades and over a trillion dollars, narcotics today are cheaper, more potent, and far easier to get than they were at the beginning of the War on Drugs.

In addition to those murdered in the streets by gang warfare, victims of drug prohibition include the 37 million Americans arrested and the 58 percent of federal prison inmates incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes. Although the United States has only 4.6 percent of the world's population, we have 22.5 percent of the world's prisoners.

Because so many Americans are in jail, our correctional facilities are at their breaking points, making prison building the fastest growing industry in the country. Inmates create an enormous burden for society. Each one costs the state $16,000 a year to imprison. Further, removing millions of people from the work force weakens the economy and creates endless misery by breaking families apart.

Drug prohibition perpetuates racial segregation and permanent intergenerational poverty of minorities in inner cities. According to government estimates, only 12 percent of drug users are black, but nearly 40 percent of those arrested for drug offenses are black.

The disproportionately large number of incarcerated minority parents, and thus lack of positive adult role models, devastates the inner city social structure, sustaining a hopeless cycle of poverty. These woes are compounded by the fact that most street wars between rival drug factions take place in poor communities, making the inhabitants live in a literal war zone.

The War on Drugs has quickly evolved into a public health nightmare. Because narcotics are not quality controlled by the government, they can be more harmful than they need to be, as they may contain contaminants or fatal potency levels. Prohibition has also reduced the availability of hypodermic needles, promoting the sharing of dirty needles and transmission of HIV.

Finally, because government funding is squandered on imprisoning casual drug users, not enough money is available for legitimate education about the dangers of drug use and the building of treatment facilities. A RAND Drug Policy Research Center study found that treatment is 10 times more cost effective than incarceration in reducing the use of cocaine. We must prevent addiction with education, not threats, and learn to treat, not marginalize, these sufferers.

Some fear that decriminalizing illicit drugs would create a chaotic environment where drug abuse is rampant. However, it's actually hard to imagine a society where drugs are more prevalent than our own, as a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey found that 90 percent of High School seniors said that marijuana is "very easy" to get. Decriminalization may even decrease drug use by removing the enticing taboo. This was the case in The Netherlands, where nine years after marijuana was legalized, teen use has actually declined from 10 percent to 6.5 percent.

The government is robbing you of your right to choose what to put into your own body. Even though I choose not to use drugs, I respect the decisions of users, as long as they consume drugs in a responsible way that doesn't harm others. With the onset of the Amythest Initiative, it is my hope that the informed and unimpeded debate over controlled substances will also encompass this wasteful, naive, and dangerous travesty of a war.

Daniel Eichberg is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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